Creepy: Air Marshals Are Following Dozens Of Regular Travelers Every Day

Filed Under: Security/TSA

The US has had a federal air marshal program for decades, since long before 9/11. Nowadays this is under the supervision of the Transportation Security Administration, and the program has an annual budget of nearly a billion dollars.

The federal air marshal program doesn’t have much to show for their work, as they’ve never actively stopped anything. There have, however, been many incidents involving air marshals, where they leave guns behind, or air marshals themselves get arrested.

I’ve had my fair share of interactions with air marshals over the years, including once being interrogated by them back when I was a teenager. Generally my assumption has been that they’re being assigned flights based on routes that are considered higher risk. For example, back in the day every flight to/from Washington Reagan Airport would have air marshals, though I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.

As it turns out, air marshals are doing a lot more than that, and it’s actually sort of creepy.

The Boston Globe has a story about how Federal Air Marshals have what’s called the “Quiet Skies” program, where they’re tracking an average of about 35 ordinary citizens every day on planes. Rather than flying on routes that are deemed high risk, air marshals are being assigned flights just to follow people. Every single move these passengers make is being documented, and they don’t even know it.

According to the internal bulletin, air marshals are following passengers who “are not under investigation by any agency and are not in the Terrorist Screening Data Base,” and the goal of the program is described as preventing risks “posed by unknown or partially known terrorists.”

When someone is on the Quiet Skies list, a team of air marshals will be put on their flight, and the air marshals will receive a file with a photo and basic information about them, and then will be given a list they have to complete. The air marshals have to note whether the passenger uses the lavatory, if they engaged in conversation with others, if they texted, if they stopped while in transit through the airport, and much more.

It appears like many air marshals are uncomfortable with this concept. For example:

In late May, an air marshal complained to colleagues about having just surveilled a working Southwest Airlines flight attendant as part of a Quiet Skies mission. “Cannot make this up,” the air marshal wrote in a message.

One colleague replied: “jeez we need to have an easy way to document this nonsense. Congress needs to know that it’s gone from bad to worse.”

One air marshal described an assignment to conduct a Quiet Skies mission on a young executive from a major company.

“Her crime apparently was she flew to Turkey in the past,” the air marshal said, noting that many international companies have executives travel through Turkey.

The president of the Air Marshal Association has also spoken out against this, noting that this is a waste of time, and that resources could be better spent in other ways:

“The Air Marshal Association believes that missions based on recognized intelligence, or in support of ongoing federal investigations, is the proper criteria for flight scheduling. Currently the Quiet Skies program does not meet the criteria we find acceptable.

The American public would be better served if these [air marshals] were instead assigned to airport screening and check in areas so that active shooter events can be swiftly ended, and violations of federal crimes can be properly and consistently addressed.”

Just wow…

  1. Does it bother anyone? No. Is it keeping us safer? Maybe maybe not but it doesnt hurt. If the Marshals dont like this task then they can quit and find another security type job. Why is this a big deal?

  2. @Steve_C: If the standard for spending gobs of government money is “it may or may not work, but it doesn’t hurt” it’s no wonder that the federal deficit is topping $800 billion and the U.S. has a worse government debt problem than many other Western countries (including “socialist” Europe). Can you imagine a private corporation spending millions of dollars on a department with the metrics for success defined as “it may or may not work, but it doesn’t hurt”?

  3. WTF? I run away from this shit from behind the “wall” in the 80’s because I never knew who is watching me and reporting me for no reason but dire consequences. Never knew when a police UAZ (Russian Jeep) will stop at my home at night to take me into interrogation because of a “report”. Am I watched again?

  4. Lucky do you ever think you have been on this quiet skies list as you travel a fair bit to several different wide variety of countries and have had that SSSS on your boarding pass?

    The funny thing is you might not even know your were tracked/spyed during one of your several several flights

    Also what happened when you were a teenager?

  5. Years ago, I once had a run in with one. He was sitting next to me on a flight to Bangkok from Tokyo or Osaka, could have been Northwest Airlines, don’t remember now. I talked to him during the flight, asked him what he did for a living, he said he was in the security business (I guess to his credit, he didn’t actually lie). I even gave him some tourist tips for Bangkok. But through our conversations, I started to develop suspicions. I know I couldn’t ask him during the flight, but once we landed, I asked him if he was a flight marshal. He smiled and said “that obvious, huh?”. Later on I thought about it and realized that his seating was probably not accidental. He was probably watching me, made me feel awful. I hope it dodn’t happen now, since I’m a Global Entry member, I’d like to think that they at least know something about me!

  6. Some of us don’t like the government looking over our shoulders all the time. This country is consistently creeping towards a police state as average folks more and more often accept less freedom in exchange for a promise of “safety,” which as you suggest is questionable at best.

  7. I don’t understand why you guys tolerate this nonsense. ‘For your security’??? This is plain fascism at work. Even the GDR in its highdays was not so ridiculous. Stop it before it has gone too far.

  8. Ben, you might want to put in a FOIA request for your FBI and related files. It would be fascinating to see what information they redact!

  9. Saw this on the news last night. I have to say, I don’t really have a problem with it… Obviously I wish they’d disclose how successful it’s been because that’s the key statistic, but overall I am okay with them tracking people they deem suspicious.

    Now, if it’s wasting tons of money and they’ve arrested a whopping 3 people with this program, then obviously it needs to be scrapped.

    My trip to the airport consists of a lounge, bar, and IFE. If they want to watch me watch a crappy movie then by all means…

  10. @Steve_C actually, it does bother me. A lot. There is a general expectation that the US government is only keeping files on people who do things that make them suspect. Most people would not consider travel to Turkey — in and of itself — a reason to be surveilled by agents of the federal government. Building files on law-abiding citizens is the sort of thing one associates with the Stasi.

  11. Lol yes, those air marshals will be following you, so what? Yes, I understand why some people might not feel that comfortable, but at the end of the day it’s fine. Why worry if you have nothing to hide? And while I think that there are certainly other methods that may be more effective it’s not the end of the world. Not like these air marshals will try to kill you

  12. I wouldn’t worry too much, I’m pretty sure there is a big element of deterrent that stories like this are intended to create. It is much cheaper to convince folks they are being watched than to actually watch them.

  13. @Peter, with all due respect, it’s easy to say “by all means” when you know the likelihood of you being targeted is very low. When someone is targeted for nothing but who s/he is, that is a completely different story. You will never know how that makes you feel.

  14. @Andy11235: Totally Agree. +1. The idea that the state can do whatever it wants when it comes to surveillance because “I am not doing anything wrong so I don’t have anything to worry about” is deeply worrying.

  15. Damn, only eleven comments and three of them here are total bent over happy to take a big one up their rear sheeple who surrender faster than the French lol.

    Well, I am a law abiding citizen with a security clearance so the government already know all about me, and no criminal record and I have a huge issue with this government overreach and deficit adding programs. But that’s because I stand for liberty, freedom, human rights, and limited government unlike some of the other commenters here.

  16. Back in 2003 I did a mileage run SEA-PDX-EUG-SMF-SFO-DEN. And when I had the same person sitting next to me or just behind me on the third leg of the trip, I asked him if he was doing the same stupid thing that I was doing. He said “No” and that he was working for a security firm. Nevertheless, he stuck with me till we arrived in Denver and was quite pissed, when he realized I would spend the night in the terminal only to fly back the same route the next morning. Sure enough, he was on the Denver to San Francisco flight as well, but then he vanished. I guess, he probably called in sick…. 😉

  17. Banks already monitor your spendings, traffic cams record your movements. Air Marshals follow you? So what?? GET OVER IT!! QUIT SPREADING FEARS!

  18. I guess this happens to every program run by the TSA. Spending a whole lot of money to do nothing beyond violating the civil liberties of the people the program is ostensibly meant to protect. Maybe we should just send all the air marshals to go build the border wall and we can avoid the latest budget standoff…

  19. @DJ, @Steve_C
    The difference is that traffic cam is monitoring everyone passing thru an intersection not a specific person. The bank monitor everyone that do business with them but not a random person.
    We are not a police state. We do not have facial recognition data on all citizens like China. (One can dubiously argue that facial recognition data on all citizens helps to catch fugutives and criminals).

    With your point of view, we actually should register every single gun owned by anyone so that we can track them in case they turn bad and commit a crime.

  20. Security is there most non sensical program ever. Spending billions to prevent the terrorists from killing a few hundred.

    Let them!

    Just pay the families of those killed a few million. That would still be ours of magnitude more cost effective.

  21. “If I’m innocent I have nothing to be afraid of”. That’s what the Central Park Five said.

  22. I couldnt care less…
    However, if I were an American tax payer, I’d be furious and demand a refund :/

  23. This is moronic but easy to justify – just scare the white ppl about the boogeyman brown guy that may or may not be a terrorist but it doesn’t hurt to spy on random ppl because they may be sympathizers of the brown ppl. Heck some of these random white ppl might even be…gasp….friends with brown ppl!!!! Holy crap!!!! Must follow them around.

    So easy!

  24. You all realize this program cost absolutely nothing. You can run this program for same price as one F35 helmet. Not plane, helmet.

    Would be hilarious to see the write-up if they followed one of us blog readers.

    “Passenger looked frustrated that 5 people where in front of them at the TSA precheck line and got angry when the person in front of them didnt know the precheck rules. Passenger headed straight for the Amex lounge and grew frustrated again when the desk agent asked if they needed the wifi password passenger clearly annoyed said “ive been here 500 times i dont need the wifi password it never changes”. Passenger became irate at the 100 kids running around the lounge and couldnt get his own table immediately. Things took a turn for the worse when passenger arrived at gate and saw 15 other Exec Platinums yelling at gate agent for not getting an upgrade. Passenger demanded upgrade despite the fact that first class checked in full”

  25. @Steve_C: Your logic is that since one government program is massively wasteful than all other government programs should be massively wasteful. With that sort of thinking among America’s electorate, it’s no wonder there is no such thing as a fiscally conservative political party any longer.

  26. @Steve_C
    I hope that write-up isn’t flying out of DFW recently, otherwise it will read.
    “Passenger headed straight for the Amex lounge. F*** Amex lounge is closed. Passenger then proceed to curse F***, few times and walk 20 feet to the nearby ‘temporary’ Club at DFW. Passenger curse F*** few more times and complain about the tiny size and how overcrowded while being 15th in line to check-in. Amazingly the ‘temporary club’ can fit 100 kids. Passenger became irate at the 100 kids running around the lounge and couldnt get his own table immediately.”

  27. Growth of the security state and too many don’t care. Those are all of our freedoms being eroded when they follow people not involved in or suspected of any criminal activity. The pleasant surprise is that it is the agents themselves who are raising concerns here.

  28. Thank my parents I’m not an American tax payer.

    The govt should invest into surveillance on mentally unstable caucasian gun buyers instead. They pose an actual threat to the public.

  29. @Michael that is one hilarious story. I can imagine the guy hating his job from that mileage run onwards.. just because of you! ha ha

  30. I’m in federal law enforcement and i’m a member of the US intelligence community at the same time. I also have quite a bit of experience traveling internationally since I lived in Asia for a few years. While the Air Marshal program has never “actively stopped” something, the have nonetheless been useful to keeping the skies safe. Additionally, a team receiving a file and performing this type of work may be invaluable to other government agencies. The Air Marshal team may never know this however…and frankly they don’t have a need to know. I find many of these comments insulting; when the US government or Intelligence Community does their job and protects this nation, it’s likely no one will ever know. And the few scum bags who get arrested and violate the public’s trust cause the entire agency to get painted with that brush. Many of the comments are shortsighted and reek of typical/baseless talking points.

  31. I’m glad SPK feels insulted, because the IC has caused far more harm than good to the well-being of American citizens in the post 9/11 world.

    ACAB, spook.

  32. The thing about intelligence work, including Air Marshals, is that we don’t know when the succeed – they don’t advertise “we stopped this big bad plan.” We do find out when they fail, because then something bad happens. But it could very well be that there’s a lot more bad things that are attempted which are stopped because of the work of the intelligence agencies, again, including the Air Marshals. We have to trust that the oversight by those who are told about the actual successes – the career officials running the programs, the political appointees running the department, and yes, Congress – allocates funding appropriately, funding programs that have some role to play in keeping the public safe.

  33. Our son flew across the country to spend some time with his biological father and grandma for part of the summer.

    While waiting for our flight we noticed a gentleman sitting across from us that was watching us. We moved, he followed. We went to eat, he sat in view of us. We noticed him looking up at us throughout lunch in the airport terminal. Our son was 6 at the time and we got scared–he was flying unsupervised.

    When he landed with his dad, his dad confirmed that this guy sat next to our son the entire time and escorted him out with the flight attendants and was an air marshal.

    I understand this man wasn’t a threat to my son as an air marshal and wasn’t planning any harm to him, but it was incredibly unsettling and hard to let him board the plane without us.

    But really–you’re tracking a 6-year-old boy?

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